'Not good enough': Michigan State falls short in second half, Penn State rolls to victory
State College, Pa. — Mel Tucker had a simple message for his Michigan State team Saturday afternoon when it arrived at Beaver Stadium, ready to take on Penn State.
The Spartans were looking to put last week’s blowout loss to Ohio State behind them and in the process end the Nittany Lions’ two-game winning streak and keep alive hopes of a potential bowl bid.
"I told them, 'All we're asking you to do, all I want you to do is go out there and play as hard as you possibly can, be as physical as you possibly can and trust your training and execute,'" Tucker said, "'and do it for 60 minutes, four quarters of the game. Play the next play and don't look at the scoreboard.'
“That’s what we were asking them to do.”
For 30 minutes, Michigan State did all those things. The offenses was humming unlike it has all season, the defense was getting stops and the special teams were doing their job.
Of course, there was one critical problem — that lasted only one half for the Spartans.
After jumping out to an 11-point lead at the break, Michigan State collapsed in the second half as Penn State rallied past the Spartans then pulled away late for a 39-24 victory.
The Nittany Lions (3-5) outscored Michigan State, 29-3, in the second half, turning a close game into a blowout, putting the Spartans in a familiar position this season.
“As I mentioned this week, we need to play complementary football and we have to do it for four quarters,” Tucker said. “It was crystal clear today what we've been talking about, and what we're striving for. In the first half, we played complementary football. We did it on offense, defense and special teams. Guys were playing hard, we had execution and we were able to have success. In the second half, we did not do that. We weren't able to do anything on offense. Defensively, we gave up plays, and then on special teams, we gave up a touchdown.”
Add it all up and it was a second half that was as deflating for the Spartans as any half this season.
It felt that way because Michigan State (2-5) played so well in the first half. Behind redshirt freshman quarterback Payton Thorne, who got his first career start in place of the injured Rocky Lombardi, the Spartans managed to score a touchdown on three straight possessions. It was the first time they’d scored on consecutive possessions since the Western Michigan game in 2019.
Thorne, who threw an interception on his first pass, was 11-for-13 for 202 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, connecting twice with Jalen Nailor and once with Tre’Von Morgan.
But it all disappeared in the second half. Michigan State managed only a Matt Coghlin field goal, punting on four straight drives at one point as Thorne finished 22-for-39 for 325 yards.
“There’s no such thing as a safe lead, especially in college football,” Tucker said. “We all know you’ve got to play for 60 minutes, you’ve got to play for four quarters.”
Penn State took advantage in the second half as Parker Washington caught a pair of touchdown passes from Sean Clifford and backup quarterback Will Levis scored on a 1-yard run. Jahan Dotson then put the game away with an 81-yard punt return for a score.
Clifford threw for 232 yards and two touchdowns while Dotson had eight receptions for 108 yards as Penn State has won three in a row after opening the season with five straight losses.
“The resiliency that we have shown, I’m proud of them,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “It’s not something that we’ve experienced or been through, so to find a way to show that type of heart, I’m very proud of them. The last three weeks we have found ways to win which is really what we’ve done for the last seven years.”
Penn State struck first, getting a 24-yard field goal from Jake Pinegar to take a 3-0 lead with 6:06 left in the first quarter. The Michigan State defense responded late in the first quarter to get a stop that led to the Spartans taking over at their 40 to begin the second quarter. After two Jordon Simmons runs, Thorne hit Nailor for a 45-yard touchdown pass to take a 7-3 lead with 13:50 left in the first half. Penn State answered when Clifford burst through the line and scored on a 31-yard run to put the Nittany Lions back in front, 10-7, with 10 minutes left in the second quarter.
The Spartans responded with a seven-play drive that ended with Morgan hauling in a 26-yard touchdown pass — the first catch of his career — to give the Spartans a 14-10 lead with 6:24 left in the first half. After another Penn State punt, Thorne hit Jayden Reed for 37 yards, connected with Matt Dotson for 19 on a reverse-pass and then hit Nailor with a 7-yarder to take a 21-10 lead with 1:26 to play in the second quarter.
“We came out on that first scoring drive and we ran it really well,” Thorne said. “I think that starts the whole offense. If we can get yards on the ground, then that sets up everything else, and then I thought we were all in a pretty good rhythm. I really liked the plays that we were running and I liked how we were executing. Unfortunately, we didn’t carry that over into the second half, at all.”
That became clear fairly quickly as Penn State put together an 11-play, 75-yard drive that ended with an 8-yard touchdown pass from Clifford to Washington followed by a two-point conversion pass to Dotson to pull within 21-18 with 10:07 left in the third quarter.
The Spartans responded with a 12-play drive that reached the 4-yard line of the Nittany Lions but had to settle for a 23-yard field goal from Coghlin to push the lead to 24-18 with 1:59 left in the third quarter.
Levis then scored on a 1-yard run with 2 seconds left in the third quarter as Penn State regained the lead, 25-24. It was a quick, five-play drive that shifted momentum toward the Nittany Lions as Michigan State followed with a three-and-out. Penn State hit back quickly, scoring on a 49-yard pass from Clifford to Washington to extend the lead to 32-24 with 12:18 to play.
Penn State kept piling on, forcing another three-and-out, then pushing the lead to 39-24 with Dotson’s punt return for a touchdown.
The Spartans drove inside the Penn State 10 with less than two minutes to play and were hoping for a miracle, but they failed to come up with points as four straight passes fell incomplete.
“We didn't win today,” Tucker said. “There were some bright spots, but as a football team, we didn't get it done. So it wasn't good enough on offense, defense or special teams. It was just not good enough — period.”